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The ‘mental hump’ of community involvement

When is the last time you were in a neighbour's home? Do you have any close friends who belong to a different ethnic or cultural group? When is the last time you attended a city council or school board meeting?

Those are three of the measures by which the Vancouver Foundation has been gauging the level of community involvement and caring in this city.

All this week, urban thinkers, community-minded citizens, politicians, planners, poets and others have been meeting at Simon Fraser University's Inaugural Community Summit to tackle the issues raised by a Vancouver Foundation study released earlier this year. They're trying to answer some pretty basic questions: Why don't we talk to each other more? Why don't we trust our neighbours more? And why do people feel so isolated?

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Part of the answer may be found in census data released this week. More than 27 per cent of all Canadians now live alone – an increase of 10 per cent since 2006. Not that living alone automatically means being isolated or lonely, but I'm guessing it doesn't help.

Dave Meslin has a long list of reasons people might not feel connected to their communities.

Mr. Meslin is a Toronto-based community organizer, artist and activist pre-occupied with the issue of public space. Two years ago, his talk at TEDxToronto was titled "The Antidote to Apathy." He opened the SFU summit along with former City of Vancouver planner Larry Beasley and poet Shane Koyczan.

Mr. Meslin can point to a number of physical barriers to building healthy, connected communities – the sheer size of cities and suburban car culture among them (he's big on bikes) – but in the end he says one of the biggest impediments is a lack of confidence.

"People just don't think they have anything to contribute. It's getting people over a mental hump that maybe their contribution isn't enough," he told me in an interview this week.

More often than not, it's a negative event that brings people together; running drug dealers out of a local park, or some other neighbourhood annoyance.

In Mr. Meslin's case, it was a house fire.

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"A house was burning down. And all these people, 30 or 40 people came, and they were standing around to watch. It was the first time we had all hung out together on the street. What does that say about our culture, that it takes a fire for people to come out and talk to their neighbours?"

One of the examples Mr. Meslin cites as a success of community involvement comes from Toronto, but it is one with which I'm familiar. I happen to have friends who live just a couple of blocks away from the city's Dufferin Grove Park. It's the sort of place (especially if you have kids) that makes you shake your head and wonder if it's for real. A vast playground, the highlight of which is a giant dirt pit where kids are free to construct large-scale replicas of Devil's Tower, Wyoming if they so choose. There are also volunteers who serve coffee and snacks, potluck picnics on Friday nights, and a resident theatre troupe with its own stage.

Granted, the place also has the telltale counterculture smell of patchouli and political correctness – which I can forgive. In my experience, no park or community space in Vancouver even comes close. A collective sense of ownership, one of Mr. Meslin's criteria for a successful community, is what drives the place.

Outside of the playground and the commonality of children, and in the absence of a major structure fire, coming together as a community is more difficult – "the mental hump," as it were.

Mr. Meslin would have us erase the line between private and public by tearing down our front yard fences. Literally. He has volunteers who do exactly that in Toronto for anyone who asks.

I have a few suggestions that are perhaps more gentle.

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Knock on a neighbour's door and ask them for something, in that old-fashioned Flintstones/Honeymooners kind of way. Then, later, offer them something in return.

Mow the boulevard grass beyond your own property line. Or clear a storm drain.

Pick up litter, not just in front of your own house, but up and down the block. Maybe even across the street.

Get to know your neighbours' names. Learn something about them – where they come from. Invite them into your home.

Get your neighbours together and have a garage or yard sale.

Decorate your house for Halloween.

I know, it all sounds pretty hokey.

But it shouldn't take a house fire.

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